Vasti at Cambridge

I attended a Literature Summer School at the University of Cambridge in July 2013.

Pre- Departure:

How would you apply for summer school?

I applied for the Literature Summer School at Cambridge University quite early in the year, though the applications only close in May. I would highly recommend this, because ideally you’d only start applying for visas and buying plane tickets and so on once you know that you’ve been accepted. Furthermore, they do not ask for any academic results, so you essentially get accepted on a first-come-first-serve basis, and they do charge a non-refundable application fee of R2000, so you want to increase your chances of getting in as much as possible. For all these reasons, I applied very early, I think in February or March. That being said, I know some people got accepted very close to the closing date, and of course these considerations apply to Cambridge, but I cannot say anything about other summer schools.

The UK visa nightmare…

Applying for a visa for the UK is quite complex because they do not tell you exactly what you need, they merely suggest documents. You’ll need a special visitor (student) visa, which is valid for 6 weeks, if I remember correctly. I’ll list what I used to apply, so if you include all of these you should be fine: a certified copy of my ID (which you can get at the post office), my bank statements, proof of registration at the university, your acceptance letter from the summer school institution, the bank statements of your financial sponsor, a letter of proof of employment of your financial sponsor, print-outs of my plane tickets and proof of accommodation (I just printed out the emails confirming my booking) and proof of employment if you are employed.  I applied quite late; only about a month before leaving – this was fine, I got my visa two weeks before departure, but I would recommend for your own stress levels to get it done sooner rather than later. Keep in mind that it is summer, so the Consulate receives many applications during May-July. If you do have trouble with your visa, don’t phone the embassy, because they will refuse to help. You’ll get more useful information from the International Office and from people who have gone through the process.

Getting ready for Cambridge

You can decide whether to stay in the accommodation Cambridge provides, which I would definitely recommend. Further, be aware that the cost of the college is actually not linked to the quality of the accommodation – I learned while I was there that, though I had chosen the cheapest college to stay in (Gonville and Caius), it is in fact one of the wealthiest colleges on campus, which is why they charge less for accommodation. As a result, our food was great, and our rooms huge and very comfortable, and the college was incredibly central – so don’t be afraid of going for a cheaper option.

There is a reading list provided for most courses. Check this reading list well in advance, and do try and get the reading done before leaving. Once you’re there, you don’t want to spend your evenings in your room reading, and it’s difficult to get the most out of your lectures if you’re not prepared. Some of the reading lists can be quite extreme as well (one of my one-week courses included 4 novels, 6 short stories and several long poems), so give yourself enough time to get through it all if possible.

Summer School at Cambridge

The students

The Literature Summer School is one of several summer schools offered at Cambridge in the summer holidays. The others include Science, Ancient Empires, Interdisciplinary, Shakespeare and Medieval. You chiefly come into contact with others staying in your college, and those in your discipline. The people there ranged from 18-70, though the majority of people are between 19-23 years old. A vast range of countries is represented, which is brilliant – I befriended people from Chile, France, Croatia, Switzerland, China, Singapore, Malaysia, India and more. Africa is, however, seriously underrepresented, so do attend to give us some presence!

All the hard work

The academic program works as follows: there are morning and afternoon classes from Monday-Friday for the two weeks (I only attended one term, which lasted two weeks). You choose which electives to take, and each typically only lasts one week, so five classes in all. One of my courses stretched over two weeks, which meant I could only choose three instead of four. The courses I chose were: Russian Sin (in which we studied Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and Lolita); Modernism (which looked at many texts, including Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and Heart of Darkness) and Philosophy of Literature. In addition to your electives, you also attend two plenary lectures, one before lunch and one in the evening. Occasionally the evening lecture is replaced by entertainment, such as a Garden Party or folk dancing.

There are no academic obligations on the weekends, but they do organise excursions. I didn’t go on any excursions because they really were very expensive, and I wanted to see Cambridge, so I went to museums, jazz concerts and plays in Cambridge on the weekends.  If you do opt to an evaluation, you may need to spend the weekend writing your essay.

Falling in love with Cambridge?

It was interesting to compare Cambridge to Stellenbosch. They are in fact not vastly different – Cambridge is also a student town with a strong tourist presence in summer. Both have beautiful buildings (Cambridge is just older, and more Gothic, and more dramatic), lovely nature around them, and the facilities were similar as well – in fact, some of our lecture rooms were of a higher standard than the ones we used in Cambridge, though I do not doubt that we didn’t see the best rooms in Cambridge.  It must be said that their food and dining facilities are fantastic compared to ours, and their residences are also more luxurious than Stellenbosch (we each got a room to ourselves, plus a study/living room).

In terms of academics, I was pleased to see how similar Cambridge is to Stellenbosch in their literature lectures: this is in terms of approach, in terms of content, in terms of themes selected and in terms of quality of the lectures. However, their manner of evaluation is different. In Stellenbosch, our opinions as undergraduates are not valued, and we must rely on secondary sources. However, at Cambridge they demand original work, and one may only use a secondary source if you want to criticise it. This is, in my opinion, a far more valuable and meaningful way to challenge the students.

Back in Stellenbosch

The good life

It struck me when I was overseas that we are incredibly unaware of how easy it is to have a good life in South Africa – one cannot underestimate the everyday advantages of good weather and cheap living costs. The UK is incredibly expensive, and even if you earn a fair amount, you can get far less for it than you would in South Africa. Our living costs are cheaper than even other developing countries like India and Brazil. Since I’ve returned, I’ve not though anything expensive, and have rejoiced in the delicious locally grown apples that cost maybe R13 a kilogram (compared to R30 for 4 in the UK).

I’ve also realised that we place overseas universities, particularly American and British, on an unjustified pedestal. Cambridge is wonderful, but in the aspects I was able to observe (literature lectures), it is more or less on the same level as Stellenbosch (of course, they have the advantage of being larger and wealthier). I’ve come to have more pride in my education, and am now convinced that my undergraduate degree will be worth as much as one attained in Princeton or Cambridge. That being said, it frustrates me that we are not able to do original academic work on an undergraduate level, and I am not sure that the way our Humanities faculty is so bound to secondary texts is justified or necessary.

Infected with wanderlust

I certainly plan to go on a longer exchange in the future. The summer school is academic, but because of most of us it didn’t count for anything (like credits at home universities), the atmosphere was not always one of academic seriousness. This is great for two weeks, but I do crave a more rigorous and challenging academic experience. Cambridge remains hugely attractive, but I am strongly considering going to Germany instead so I can work on my German language skills. It certainly made the whole adventure of going overseas alone less intimidating: the summer school helps one to realise it’s exciting rather than scary to do this, and it’s easy to meet people if many of them don’t know other people. Furthermore, it’s possible to learn so much about the world, yourself, your academic field in two weeks, so I can only imagine how much more one would learn on a longer exchange. I feel that it’s very beneficial to get insight into how other universities function, and where their emphases lie, because it gives you a much broader perspective of what your field of study looks like. This is especially important for me, as I’m strongly considering going into academia.

Of course, the downside of the return is that you probably won’t be ready to leave, and you do miss the town, the people. At least now I know I have acquaintances in at least 10 different countries across the world that I could visit someday.